A teacher who donated Bibles in Cuba faces a $10,000 fine for an apparently illegal trip, personalizing the travel ban as Congress wrestles with the issue.
WASHINGTON - Joni Scott, a teacher at a Christian academy in Indiana, does not seem a likely foe of Bush administration policy on Cuba as she lobbies Capitol Hill against the ban on travel to the island. But Scott, 43, a Republican who teaches classes on ‘‘godly women’’ to Christians, faces a $10,000 fine from the Treasury Department for violating the ban after her church group gave away hundreds of Bibles during an unlicensed trip to Cuba four years ago.
‘‘I thought that was what our country was about—to be able to travel freely so we can bring the Gospel into the homes of people,’’ said Scott, who has also distributed Bibles in Russia and Mexico.
The Bush administration is fighting off a determined effort by majorities in both the House and Senate to end the enforcement of the travel ban. President Bush has instead ordered the Treasury and Homeland Security departments to step up enforcement efforts against illegal trips.
Wednesday night, a House-Senate conference committee began consideration of a $90 billion Treasury-Transportation spending bill with a provision that would bar using funds on enforcing the ban.
Scott’s presence on Capitol Hill is a reminder that many Americans with different motivations—religious, political and business—want to be able to travel freely to Cuba.
But Bush has threatened to veto any legislation that weakens U.S. sanctions on Cuba. One member of the conference committee, Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., predicted late Wednesday that the Cuba provision would be stripped from the final bill, even though both houses voted to end the ban in nearly identical language.
Advocacy groups such as the Center for International Policy, which brought Scott to the Capitol, and some business groups are finding that Republicans who oppose the ban—including 19 in the Senate—are torn. They want access to Cuba but don’t want to embarrass Bush.
‘‘This trip has been an eye-opener,’’ said Scott, of Kirklin, Ind. Some GOP staff members were “honest enough to say they were sympathetic but realistic—that they can’t afford a veto.’‘
Scott did get some help in her effort to fend off the fine from Treasury. Several senators said they will contact the Office of Foreign Assets Control in Treasury on her behalf.
‘‘This action by OFAC is simply absurd,’’ Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., wrote the agency. “The agency is supposed to be tracking down the source of terrorist financing, not chasing down a well-meaning citizen who went to Cuba to distribute Bibles.’‘
Scott joined a church trip to Cuba in November 1999 when a pastor assured her that it fell into the humanitarian or religious exceptions allowed under the travel ban. But the group, which traveled through Canada to Cuba, apparently never applied to Treasury for the required license.
Scott’s problems began when she admitted to a Customs official on her return that she had been in Cuba. She was asked to fill out a questionnaire about the trip, but she never did.
‘‘That was a mistake not to do that, but to receive this [notice] four years later is quite a shock,’’ Scott said. She would not identify the pastor or church group, saying she was worried they might receive similar threats of fines.
A Treasury Department spokeswoman said the OFAC sent Scott a ‘‘prepenalty notice’’ in September, warning of the impending fine, because she did not respond to the request for more information in 1999. ‘‘We will be reaching out to her to get more information,’’ Treasury spokeswoman Tara Bradshaw said.
Scott said she does not regret the trip to Cuba.
‘‘I will always remember one tall man who kissed the Bible when he received it,’’ she recalled. ‘‘There were wonderful people who attended baptisms by candlelight and flashlight in small groups, worried about the authorities. “I don’t think the travel ban is hurting [Fidel] Castro,’’ she added. “But I know it’s hurting me.’‘